SA was aware of UK spying – source


South Africa was well aware British agents were spying on foreign delegates during the 2009 G20 summit, but chose to deal with the matter privately to avoid being embarrassed, reports the Mail & Guardian (M&G).

According to the newspaper, a source in the Department of International Relations and Co-Operation (DIRCO) revealed SA strengthened its cyber security measures as soon as it became aware of the surveillance by the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters.

As part of the strengthened security measures, SA’s government ministers are reportedly not allowed to use any host country’s communication tools when visiting other countries.

A recent report by the UK Guardian newspaper revealing South African delegates’ communications were intercepted, so that the UK government could find out more about the negotiating position of SA, apparently comes as no surprise to government. “What was carried in that Guardian article is something we already knew,” the international relations source is quoted as saying.

DIRCO spokesperson Clayson Monyela this morning declined to comment on the M&G report, saying “no country anywhere in the world will be willing to discuss security issues”.

DIRCO last week called on the UK government to probe the spy allegations and take action against those involved. “We do not yet have the full benefit of details reported on, but – in principle – we would condemn the abuse of privacy and basic human rights, particularly if it emanates from those who claim to be democrats,” said the department.

Matter of national security

Professor Jane Duncan, Highway Africa chair of Media and Information Society at Rhodes University, recently noted the problem of cyber breaching has already been escalated to a national security threat. The government’s cyber security policy framework has been transferred from the Department of Communications to that of state security.

ITWeb reported earlier this month that the so-called Spy Bill has been signed off by the National Council of Provinces and is now only awaiting president Jacob Zuma’s signature before being passed into law. The Bill will allow state security agencies carte blanche to intercept foreign electronic communication signals.

The General Intelligence Laws Amendment Bill deals with state security agencies’ ability to monitor and intercept signals, but the final version has omitted the previous reference to foreign signals, creating concern that there are no rules in place as to how the government can monitor and intercept communications passing through foreign servers.

In an article published by M&G, Duncan says the main cyber security threats in SA are not related to national security, but related to crime and, more specifically, fraud. “While there is no denying that cyber crime is a terribly serious issue, there are unexamined implications for users’ Internet rights if we simply accept this criminal matter is so grave that it should be escalated to the level of a threat to national security, and that therefore the Department of State Security should become the lead agency on cyber security matters,” said Duncan.

On the run

Meanwhile, former US spy Edward Snowden, who leaked the information to the Guardian and is now sought by US authorities on espionage charges, has applied for asylum in Ecuador.

Snowden reportedly left Hong Kong early yesterday morning on a flight headed for Moscow.

The Guardian reports Snowden has officially been charged with theft of government property, unauthorised communication of national defence information, and wilful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorised person.

Ecuador’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patino, said earlier today that his nation has received Snowden’s request for political asylum, but no decision has been taken. “We will make a decision on this; we are analysing this with a lot of responsibility.”